Listen to this blog post:
You don’t have to be an optimist to be a gardener, but it helps. My first attempt at gardening in the mid-1990s was a complete disaster. Undeterred, I pressed on and have had much more success in subsequent years, which I think is cause for “growing” optimism. Based on stories I’ve heard from others, I’m not alone. How do we get from failure to renewed optimism as the cycle invariably repeats?
Some successful gardeners I know benefited from years of apprenticeship under parents or grandparents. They haven’t read much on the subject and can’t tell you why certain plants behave in certain ways; they just know it because they have seen the pattern for decades. Others have read and studied extensively to learn all about the nuances of plant science. They take great pride in pronouncing the botanical names for plants. I think these folks should earn a special merit badge for knowing these complicated terms; it sounds really impressive when you talk with them. There also are those who just love to play in the dirt and gardening is an excuse for doing so as an adult. I fall into the last category. In the end, true gardeners come to realize success is rooted in the soil. It’s all about compost – lots of it.
We all have different journeys as gardeners and unique perspectives based on our experiences. But we share one thing in common – a tendency to be optimistic.
There is another population we should recognize as they are growing in number. They are people who would not describe themselves as gardeners; they just like flowers. I think the difference between people who like flowers and those who garden is that gardeners typically have spent a lot more money recovering from failure.
Flower lovers are mostly interested in annuals since they show well for much of the growing season in bright colors. I have to admit they are seductive – relatively inexpensive, immediately pay-off and available in large quantities. However, I am reminded of a friend who was not fond of annuals and preferred to refer to them as “terminals.” He has a point. Maybe gardeners generally share a longer term view of the future. A neighbor of mine years ago, who had very interesting gardens, gave me a piece of advice after seeing my struggle with failure. He said, “Just take it one bed at a time.”
The optimism of gardeners comes with experience and most say the key to success is repeated failure. While some get discouraged and decide to pursue other interests, my view is that these were flower lovers simply masquerading as gardeners. The real gardeners find a way to overcome reality with optimism.
Whenever a gardener approaches a new garden space or one that is to be reclaimed, the first step is to stop and look around. Sit quietly and ask a very simple question, “How can I cooperate with this space?” It’s true we can garden by brute force and actually produce some impressive results. Weak soil conditions can be artificially and rapidly boosted, irrigation planned and installed, and plant material adapted. We all do this sometimes. The challenge is to slow down and consider the natural setting first. How does the sun move over this area? What are the natural soil conditions? How does this area drain? Such questions cause us to see the contours of the landscape differently. Learning to work with what is already there is a significant factor in successful gardening. While these observations do not define the future, it forces us to see the context for the work ahead and visualize the possibilities. To be a gardener is to be thoughtful about planning.
The best garden planning also takes into consideration the possible threats to long-term success. There are always things we can do little about. A severe storm can undo much of what we have done. A few wandering deer or a persistent groundhog can consume more than we would imagine. It’s prudent to protect. Fencing is our friend. A covering shields from frost. To deny threats is to be foolish. Wisdom is demonstrated in what we do to recover that which is worth preserving. I have been amazed at how much damage a plant can suffer from pests and still survive to return for another season. It may be altered in some way, even permanently. Yet the lesson plants teach gardeners is not to live out of a place of fear. Instead we proceed with optimism, prune what needs pruning, compost what cannot be saved and most of all – replant. To be a gardener is to let change happen.
I love perennials. They don’t seem to mind being replanted. I’ve learned mistakes in planning and the effects of change often can be overcome with flexibility. This allows gardeners to take a few risks, because we know we can often adjust something later. If we get the plant spacing wrong, or a set of plants grows differently than we anticipated, we can carefully make a move. There are limits to be sure. Some plants will not respond well to the change. There is often some degree of shock to the plant. Yet, we generally find long term success with a more flexible approach. Gardeners work hard to get it right the first time, but if we become inflexible we diminish our capacity for the best overall results. To be a gardener is to remain flexible.
Gardeners are accustomed to adversity. There’s a lot that can go wrong and every growing season is different. The interesting thing is you don’t often see gardeners arguing (unless it’s over the pronunciation of a big word). There is little in the way of acrimony among gardeners. We all recognize that most of what we face as challenges is outside our control. What we do seem to understand is that blame never works in a garden. It accomplishes nothing. Sometimes plants die for no obvious reason. Sometimes there’s a rock in the way. Sometimes it doesn’t rain enough. In these times we draw on our optimism; we become thoughtful about planning; we learn to let change happen; we remain flexible. We need more gardeners.